Zipaquirá is synonymous with salt. And has always been so. At least it is what I’ve been taught.
It shouldn’t be a surprise: the city has a long – very long – history of salt mining, dating back to pre-Hispanic colonization and it probably one of the oldest settlements in this part of the Andean Cordillera. The valley of salt-rich mountains was part of the domains of the Muisca Confederation and key to its commerce.
It has not been uncommon in recent years for the locals to accidentally dig up evidence of the Muisca peoples’ way of life in their backyard. I could argue its pre-colonial history outshines it current notoriety as a tourist destination, but not many are aware.
The city – small in comparison to gargantuan Bogotá and its terrifying sprawl – lies a little north of the Colombian capital, in the Abra Valley, some 40 kilometers into the Eastern Cordillera plateau. Maybe a bit longer than a 40-minute drive. It really depends on the traffic.
My advice is to head out early. Late afternoon traffic on the way back to Bogotá can be hectic. Or worse.
Zipaquirá is a small, picturesque city, worth more than its salt (pun intended) for tourists. It has quaint and well-preserved colonial architecture all around. Not unlike what you can get a glimpse of in downtown Bogotá, but much more so. It even has a more authentic and lived-in character, busier in the sense only a small city can be this kind of busy.
People are also friendlier and more welcoming than in comparatively drab Bogotá.
It has less of that odd big-city neglect, and the city is probably more colorful and picture-worthy now that it ever really was during the colony. Its a pastiche in some places, sure, but that’s also part of the charm.
The city is a great chance to have a taste of what local Andean cuisine is all about. I’m not a fan of the chunky, potato-heavy soups, but if you are having ajiaco, why not here? Its sure to be good. It might make you sleepy after, but there’s nothing a cup of coffee can’t fix.
And if you are not in the mood or can’t stomach such a hefty meal, there’s always almojábanas. Delicious cheesy bread-things. You are missing out. And they go great with coffee. Most things do.
But most who come don’t do so for the charming architecture or the food (although they should). Most come to the City of Salt, for this region is rich in salt deposits. Both Zipaquirá and Nemocón boast spectacular underground mines with more than 500 years of history. They are a sight to see and have of late become a popular tourist attraction for the region.
But most will likely come to the Abra Valley to visit the famous underground cathedral. Or rather the not-really-a-cathedral cathedral in the mines. Because despite what they might want you to believe, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is not a cathedral. Not even technically one. It is a big church where catholic mass is celebrated, yes, but for it to be a cathedral it would need a bishop. And it doesn’t have one.
Not that this takes away from it. Not at all. It is a dumb technicality and the name has a ring to it. “Salt Church” is just not grand enough.
It is still an architectural wonder: a monument carved, chiseled and sculped out of an enormous salt mine. Its nothing to scoff at and the design, carvings and lighting make for an eerie, yet compelling, ambiance. It has that terrifying and wonderful grandeur that only cathedrals can have. Its humbling, for sure. It would be a mistake not to go if you are around.
It also has an interesting story behind it. An ambitious bid for a World Wonder, no less, that became an important religious pilgrimage site in recent history.
I would just advice against licking the walls. They are made of salt, no need to confirm it with your taste buds. Its probably not too sanitary and one too many kids have already played guinea pig. Abstain. I didn’t and I low-key regret it to this day.
But you won’t regret visiting the cathedral: engineering, ingenuity, architecture and art at its best.